QUITO, Ecuador — In the Ecuadorian Andes, on the glacier-covered slopes of Chimborazo volcano, a tradition enduring centuries lives on through Baltazar Ushcar, the last working iceman.
Twice a week, 67-year-old Ushcar makes the 6-mile journey up the base of Chimborazo to ice mines at the foot of its glacier, where he chops away by hand to remove and shape 60-pound blocks of ice to sell at the nearby Riobamba market. Locals claim that the ice has natural healing powers and that it is far superior to ice now made at factories and stored in freezers.
He has been making the trip and harvesting the ice, as his ancestors did, every week since he was 15 years old, and is now the last man to make a living as a "hielero."
But in recent years the Chimborazo glacier — like many glaciers throughout Latin America and around the world — has retreated at an alarming rate. Scientists predict that most Andean glaciers may disappear completely in 10 to 15 years. At the same time, generations following Ushcar have lost interest in the hard work and customs of the hieleros, instead seeking industrial work in cities.
As Ushcar ages and the glacier melts away, this unique, centuries-old tradition is at risk of being lost forever.